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What tax-favored educational savings programs are available?

Dear Mr. Premack: Last week you were giving advice to a new grandparent on how to help support his son, who is a new parent. One of the ideas was to help fund your new grandchild’s college expenses with what you called a 529 plan, a Coverdell Education Savings Account or Education Savings Bonds. Those sound interesting to me as well. Can you tell me more about what they are? – T.W.

Congress set up these legal methods to encourage people to save for college expenses. They each have different tax benefits, limits and limitations. This type of planning is an important part of your overall estate plan, and should be combined with thinking about your Will, a trust for minor children, life insurance and disability planning like a durable power of attorney and medical directives.

The Coverdell Education Savings Account law was passed in 2002, and is named after Senator Paul Coverdell who died shortly before its passage. It must be opened at a bank or other IRS approved financial institution, and the beneficiary must be under age 18. The person opening the account and making the deposits (like you as a grandparent) must have “modified adjusted gross income” of less than $220,000 for a couple or $110,000 for a single taxpayer.

Each year before the beneficiary reaches 18, up to $2000 can be deposited to the Coverdell account. The deposit is not tax deductible. However, the funds will grow inside the account tax-free. When funds are withdrawn, they are also tax-free so long as they are expended for “qualified educational expenses”. Funds in a Coverdell can be used for college or for elementary or secondary education expenses. Tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment are qualified educational expenses. Room and board is also a qualified educational expense, but only if the student is enrolled at least half-time with the school. As with any program overseen by the IRS, other limits may apply.

A 529 plan, sometimes called a “qualified tuition program” or QTP, must be run by the government of a state. The Texas Tomorrow Funds are qualified tuition programs. The Texas program had some difficulty meeting its funding obligation in the last decade, and the Texas Prepaid Higher Education Tuition board has renamed the plans and reformulated them in a way it hopes will be more sustainable. Some other states have managed their plans with fewer troubles and more reliable results.

Contributions to a QTP are not deductible. There is no income cap on the donor, and the amount donated is limited only by the expected educational expenses of the future student. When distributions are made there is no tax due so long as the money is spent on qualified educational expenses. In addition to tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, and room and board, funds from a QTP can also be spent to acquire computer technology, equipment and internet access when used while the beneficiary is a qualified student. Again, this is a program set up by law and overseen by the IRS, so it is complex and there are many other rules that I have not mentioned.

The Education Savings Bond program allows you to cash in certain US Savings Bonds tax-free. A “qualified US Savings Bond” must be a series EE issued in 1990 or later, or a series I bond. The owner of the bond must be at least age 24 before the bond was issued (i.e., the parent owns the bond, not the young student). When the bond is cashed and the funds are spent for qualified educational expenses, the interest earned is tax free.

The student can be the bond’s owner, spouse or a dependent. Thus, grandparents can only use this tool if the grandchild qualifies as a dependent of the grandparent. Further, the whole program fails (you have to pay tax on the bond’s income) if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $135,100 for a married couple or $85,100 if filing singly. For all of these tax-favored savings opportunities, consult IRS Publication 970 for additional details and restrictions.

Paul Premack is a Certified Elder Law Attorney practicing estate planning and probate law in San Antonio.

Original Publication: San Antonio Express News, January 27, 2012


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